Growth in International Applicants Slows [Inside Higher Ed]

by Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed

The growth in international graduate student applications at American colleges and universities has slowed considerably, according to new survey results released today by the Council of Graduate Schools. The council found that the number of international applicants grew only 3 percent in 2008, after gains of 9 and 12 percent in the preceding two years.

Furthermore, 38 percent of institutions surveyed said they’d seen declines in international student applications from 2007 to 2008. And 65 percent of graduate schools that have consistently participated in the survey still have not recovered from sharp post-September 11 declines.

“With increases of 12 and 9 percent over a couple years it would be unreasonable to expect the pace of growth to remain so high. Just mathematically as you begin to increase your base it’s hard to maintain that pace. The slowdown was not the unexpected part. It’s really the pace at which the slowdown is occurring, is where our level of concern is,” said Kenneth Redd, the main author of the report and director of research and policy analysis at the council. “At roughly a third of institutions responding to our survey, applications fell and fell pretty sharply.”

A total of 157 graduate schools responded to the survey, for a 33 percent response rate. Much of the slowdown, the council says, is attributed to changes in applications from the top three sending countries — India, China, and Korea. Applications from India, which had increased 26 and 12 percent in the last two years, were flat in 2008, as were applications from Korea. Applications from China increased 12 percent in 2008, a slowdown from 19 percent growth in 2007.

Possible explanations include perceptions of the United States as dangerous and unwelcoming (and in fact difficult to enter due to visa issues), alongside increased competition from other countries hoping to attract international graduate students. Australia, Britain, France and Germany, for instance, have conducted national marketing campaigns and have stepped up financial support, as the council’s report notes.

At the same time, the top sending countries in Asia are investing in improving their higher education systems, creating more incentives for students to stay in their home countries. The report states that the number of graduate students in China has more than doubled since 1998.

Yet, it is not all about the numbers. “I think the point needs to be made that the faculty on my campus who do admissions for their graduate programs are much more focused on the quality of applications than the number that come through the door,” said Karen Klomparens, dean of the graduate school at Michigan State University. “The quality of the applications that we’re seeing is still very high, so they have an ample pool to draw on for good-quality students.”

Klomparens said the university has invested resources to diversify its population of international students by recruiting in other countries outside the big three. Michigan State has especially focused, she said, on countries that tie graduate education to their economic development goals and have fellowship dollars available. (She mentioned, for instance, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.)

“We don’t want to just focus on one country or two countries or three countries just the same way we don’t focus on one state, two states or three states,” Klomparens said.

“I think the long-term is pretty clear, that countries around the world are investing a lot in graduate education and that competition is simply going to increase over time,” added William Russel, dean of the graduate school at Princeton University. “We’re fortunate that Ph.D. education in the United States is highly prized for good reasons, but other places are clearly going to begin closing the gap. So that will continue to make it more difficult for us to attract international students. But I would say that I worry just as much about attracting domestic students, if not more.”

“Certainly,” Russel explained, “the domestic students applying to graduate schools have not increased in numbers as much as international students have over the last 10 years.”